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“We should never have left La Safouri. In Christ’s name, a blind man could see that.”
“Is that so? Then why didn’t some blind man speak up and say so before we left? I’m sure de Ridefort would have listened and paid heed, especially to a blind man.”
“You can shove your sarcasm up your arse, de Belin, I mean what I say. What are we doing here?”
“We’re waiting to be told what to do. Waiting to die. That’s what soldiers do, is it not?”
Alexander Sinclair, knight of the Temple, listened to the quiet but intense argument behind him, but he took pains to appear oblivious to it, because even though a part of him agreed with what Sir Antoine de Lavisse was complaining about so bitterly, he could not afford to be seen to agree. That might be prejudicial to discipline. He pulled the scarf tighter around his face and stood up in his stirrups to scan the darkened encampment around them, hearing the muffled sounds of unseen movement everywhere and another, distant Arabic voice, part of the litany that had been going on all night, shouting “Allahu Akbar,” God is great. At his back, Lavisse was still muttering.
“Why would any sane man leave a strong, secure position, with stone walls and all the fresh water his army might ever need, to march into the desert in the height of summer? And against an enemy who lives in that desert, swarms like locusts, and is immune to heat? Tell me, please, de Belin. I need to know the answer to that question.”
“Don’t ask me, then.” De Belin’s voice was taut with disgust and frustration. “Go and ask de Ridefort, in God’s name. He’s the one who talked the idiot King into this and I’ve no doubt he’ll be glad to tell you why. And then he’ll likely bind you to your saddle, blindfold you and send you out alone, bare-arsed, as an amusement offering to the Saracens.”
Sinclair sucked his breath sharply. It was unjust to place the blame for their current predicament solely upon the shoulders of Gerard de Ridefort. The Grand Master of the Temple was too easy and too prominent a target. Besides, Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, needed to be goaded if he were ever to achieve anything. The man was a king in name only, crowned at the insistence of his doting wife, Sibylla, sister of the former king and now the legitimate Queen of Jerusalem. He was utterly feckless when it came to wielding power, congenitally weak and indecisive. The arguing men at Sinclair’s back, however, had no interest in being judicious. They were merely complaining for the sake of complaining.
“Sh! Watch out, here comes Moray.”
Sinclair frowned into the darkness and turned his head slightly to where he could see his friend, Sir Lachlan Moray, approaching, mounted and ready for whatever the dawn might bring, even though there must be a full hour of night remaining. Sinclair was unsurprised, for from what he had already seen, no one had been able to sleep in the course of that awful, nerve-racking night. The sound of coughing was everywhere, the harsh, raw-throated barking of men starved for fresh air and choking in smoke. The Saracens swarming around and above them on the hillsides under the cover of darkness had set the brush up there ablaze in the middle of the night, and the stink of smoldering resinous thorn bushes had been growing ever stronger by the minute. Sinclair felt a threatening tickle in his own throat and forced himself to breathe shallowly, reflecting that ten years earlier, when he had first set foot in the Holy Land, he had never heard of such a creature as a Saracen. Now it was the most common word in use out here, describing all the faithful, zealous warriors of the Prophet Muhammad—and more accurately of the Kurdish Sultan Saladin—irrespective of their race. Saladin’s empire was enormous, for he had combined the two great Muslim territories of Syria and Egypt, and his army was composed of all breeds of infidel, from the dark-faced Bedouins of Asia Minor to the mulattos and ebony Nubians of Egypt. But they all spoke Arabic and they were now all Saracens.
“Well, I see I’m not alone in having slept well and dreamlessly.” Moray had drawn alongside him and nudged his horse forward until he and Sinclair were sitting knee to knee, and now he stared upward into the darkness, following Sinclair’s gaze to where the closer of the twin peaks known as the Horns of Hattin loomed above them. “How long, think you, have we left to live?”
“Not long, I fear, Lachlan. We may all be dead by noon.”
“You, too? I needed you to tell me something different there, my friend.” Moray sighed. “I would never have believed that so many men could die as the result of one arrogant braggart’s folly … one petty tyrant’s folly and a king’s gutlessness.”
The city of Tiberias, the destination that they could have reached the night before, and the freshwater lake on which it stood, lay less than six miles ahead of them, but the governor of that city was Count Raymond of Tripoli, and Gerard de Ridefort, Master of the Temple, had decided months earlier that he detested Raymond, calling the man a Muslim turncoat, treacherous and untrustworthy.
In defiance of all logic in the matter of reaching safety and protecting his army, de Ridefort had decided the previous afternoon that he had no wish to arrive at Tiberias too soon. It was not born of a reluctance to meet Raymond of Tripoli again, for Raymond was here in camp, with the army, and his citadel in Tiberias was being defended by his wife, the lady Eschiva, in his absence. But whatever his reasons, de Ridefort had made his decision, and no one had dared gainsay him, since the majority of the army’s knights were Templars. There was a well in the tiny village of Maskana, close to where they were at that moment, de Ridefort had pointed out to his fellow commanders, and so they would rest there overnight and push down towards Lake Tiberias in the morning.
Of course, Guy de Lusignan, as King of Jerusalem, could have vetoed de Ridefort’s suggestion as soon as it was made, but, true to his vacillating nature, he had acceded to de Ridefort’s demands, encouraged by Reynald de Chatillon, another formidable Templar and a sometime ally of the Master of the Temple. De Chatillon, a vicious and foresworn law unto himself and even more arrogant and autocratic than de Ridefort, was the castellan of the fortress of Kerak, known as the Crow’s Castle, the most formidable fortress in the world, and he held the distinction of being the man whom Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, hated most in all the Frankish armies.
And so the signal had been passed and the army of Jerusalem, the greatest single army ever assembled by the eighty-year-old kingdom, had stopped and made camp, while the legions of Saladin’s vast army—its cavalry alone outnumbered the Franks by ten to one—almost completely encircled them. Hemmed in on all sides even before night fell, the Frankish army of twelve hundred knights, supported by ten thousand foot soldiers and some two thousand light cavalry, made an uncomfortable camp, dismayed and unnerved, alas too late, by the swift-breaking news that the well by which their leaders had chosen to stop was dry. No one had thought to check it in advance.
When a light breeze sprang up at nightfall they were grateful for the coolness it brought, but within the hour they were cursing it for blowing the smoke among them throughout the night.
Now the sky was growing pale with the first light of the approaching day, and Sinclair knew, deep in his gut, that the likelihood of him or any of his companions surviving the coming hours was slim at best. The odds against them were laughable.
The Temple Knights, whose motto was “First to attack; last to retreat,” loved to boast that a single Christian sword could rout a hundred enemies. That arrogant belief had led to an incredible slaughter of a large force of Templars and Hospitallers at Cresson, a month and some days earlier. Every man in the Christian force, except for the Master de Ridefort himself and four wounded, nameless knights, had gone down to death that day. But the army surrounding them this day would quickly put the lie to such vaunting nonsense, probably once and for all. Saladin’s army was composed almost entirely of versatile, resilient light cavalry. Mounted on superbly agile Yemeni horses and lightly armored for speed, these warriors were armed with weapons of damascened steel and light, lethal lances with shafts made from reeds. Thoroughly trained in the tactics of swift attack and withdrawal, they operated in small, fast, highly mobile squadrons and were well organized, well led and disciplined. There were countless thousands of them, and they all spoke the same language, Arabic, which gave them an enormous advantage over the Franks, many of whom could not speak the language of the Christians fighting next to them.
Sinclair had known for months that the army Saladin had gathered for this Holy War—the host that now surrounded the Frankish army—contained contingents from Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, and he knew, too, that leadership of the various divisions of the army had been entrusted to Saladin’s ferocious Kurdish allies, his elite troops. The mounted cavalry alone, according to rumor, numbered somewhere in the realm of fifteen thousand, and he had seen with his own eyes that the supporting host accompanying them was so vast it filled the horizon as it approached the Frankish camp, stretching as far as the eye could see. Sinclair had clearly heard the number of eighty thousand swords being passed from mouth to mouth among his own ranks. He believed the number to be closer to fifty thousand, but he gained no comfort from that.